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Celebrated author Jonis Agee shares the “Art of Fiction”

<e's no humbler or more down-to-earth Diva in the writing world than Jonis." Greg Hewett's introduction of the acclaimed award-winning author Jonis Agee last Tuesday not only boasted of her many accomplishments, but of her strong personality. As Agee began to address the small crowd in the Gould Library Athenaeum while sporting one of her twenty pairs of cowboy boots (this pair featuring a stuffed snake), it was clear that Peter's introduction was spot on.

Agee, born in Omaha, Nebraska ,is the Adele Hall Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. She is the author of five novels, five collections of short fiction, and two books of poetry. Her books have earned recognition from the Mark Twain Award to ForeWord Magazine’s Editor’s Choice Award to the list of notable Books of the Year by the New York Times. Through her insightfully witty presentation, “To Wake the Sleeper: Wonder and Research in Novel Writing,” Agee spoke of the process and the life of researching and writing novels.

In the first part of her presentation, Agee relayed her difficult experience of teaching Shakespeare’s Hamlet to her college English class. After weeks of struggle and almost giving up on teaching its complex ideas, two of her “not-the-smartest students” came into class, suddenly able to understand and read all of it.  They had spent the weekend watching the film and discussing the context within both the film and the book. Said Agee, “I realized then that my job was to wake the sleeper in both the students and myself.”

Writers, it seems to Agee, have to let mystery take a hold of them and to “discover what is the mystery within each human heart.” Wonder should never be unappreciated or disregarded even if it means that “every writer must have a grain of stupidity in them… You’ve got to figure out what’s got a hold of you so that you can get a hold of it” announced Agee. According to Agee, wonder leads to experience, creation and discoveries.

This led Agee into her discussion on the process of research in novel writing. She revealed how writers research for hundreds and hundreds of facts, but when it comes down to the process of actually writing a novel, a writer will only use about 15% of the facts they collected. Agee admitted that even with her new historical novel, The River Wife that “it just takes a few number of certain facts to convince human beings.”

Agee discussed the various ways of researching facts and, in particular, emphasized the power of experience driven by wonder. Agee always spends physical time in the settings of her novels. “I like to take my characters driving.” Her belief is that there’s a certain character, and spirit to places that can only be conveyed through physically being there. “Wonder,” Agee declared, “is the best travel companion.”

In research, “you can’t be intentional.” Agee described how hard work strips creativity and that writers cannot use every fact they  find. Sometimes you have to save your ideas and facts, like her little roll of barbed-wire from a museum in Kansas that she carried around (no easy feat) for years before finding a place in a novel to write about it. “We are forced to become searchers,” always wandering and looking for an opportunity to respond. “Sometimes,” said Agee, “to build the biggest fires, you have to throw yourself in.”

Agee disclosed that in order to become a writer “you have to record it as quickly as you can. You have to be obtrusive.” Once, after writing a piece about a character similar to her mother, she received a note from her mom containing the five words “write about things you know.” All in all, she often attempts to disguise information by breaking it up within her novel to protect her friends and family, “but then I realized, it’s my life too,” said Agee, “and there’s stuff you don’t have to publish until they’re dead.”

“As a writer, you’re always working; it’s exhausting and there are times you don’t do it, but it’s your work.” Agee told the audience how she always writes down her facts, ideas, and, as she calls them, “accidental conversations.” Agee even admitted (to the audience’s fear) her new skill of “blind writing” while she’s driving. “You have to write it down right away or else you’ll forget it,” explained Agee, “I mean, it’s not like I’m making love with my husband and writing…but you do always have several jobs.” 

In the end, from her cowboy boots to her wit and insight, to her stories, experiences and writing,  the label as a “down-to-earth diva,” seems appropriate. Her hard work has made her exceedingly successful in the writing world, and, as she disclosed at the very end of her talk, “people say, don’t you waste a lot of time writing?’ But we all waste time. And creating keeps you out of the streets. If I wasn’t writing, I’d be destroying things.…you’re the same way right?”

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